By Lou Washington
This past week the Boeing 707 reached its 60th birthday. The 707 was not the first pure jet passenger transport in the air. But, it was such a huge commercial success that it attained a kind of iconic status among the flying public.
For many of us, the 707 would be the first jet aircraft we would fly. It was a ground breaking airplane. Boeing had not spent much time building or designing passenger transport aircraft after the war. The military kept them busy developing the B-47 and B-52 long range strategic bombers. Both of these aircraft featured technology and design elements incorporated in the non-military 707.
During my young life, I had occasion to fly now and then. Prior to the 707, I had flown in DC-3s, DC-7s and perhaps a Convair of some sort, but the model number was not of any significance to me at the time.
Air travel in these larger prop powered aircraft was pleasant enough. Yes, they were loud and there was a lot more vibration then you typically feel in a modern jet. But the big deal about the 707 was the speed. The 707 cruised at a rate in the neighborhood of 600 mph. That my friend, was very fast to most of the flying public.
By comparison, a Connie or a DC-7 cruised around 350 mph. A little better than half the speed of the four engine 707.
The effect of this was to shrink the world by about half. What used to be a ten hour cross country flight meant you could now fly five hours west in the morning, conduct your business in the afternoon and take the red-eye back east in time for work the next day. Flying the same route in a prop job, would require a day out, a day onsite and a day back.For business and sales folks, this was huge.
I remember vividly my first flight in a jet and it was, of course a Boeing 707. I was about 13 years old and I was lucky enough to be included on a class trip to Washington DC and New York City. I was just thrilled.
Standing on the tarmac at St Louis Lambert Field, The huge TWA 707 seemed to stretch out across my entire field of view. Flying was markedly different in those days. Upon entering the airplane the flight attendant took us to our seats. Once I was buckled in, I inspected the content of the seat pocket in front of me. In addition to the magazine and emergency procedure card, each passenger was provided with a 5 pack of Winston cigarettes! Of course, I was too young to partake.
My memories of the flight are vague, but I do remember that there was a pronounced feeling of acceleration that lasted somewhat longer than the acceleration phase in a prop. The other big difference was altitude. The 707 flew miles above the Earth, while the prop transports had a considerably lower operational ceiling.
This made most of the ground features all but invisible in the jet. But the ride was was sublime! Flying in the 707 after riding in a big prop transport was like riding in a Lincoln Towncar after spending days riding in a poorly maintained buckboard pulled by an ornery mule.
I have included a couple of snapshots from my first jet voyage. I always enjoyed flying the 707 during my road warrior days in the ’80s. It was not my favorite, but part of the reason for that was it became increasingly rare as the ’80s moved on toward the nineties.
Boeing built the last 707 in 1979. A 21 year production run for a commercial airplane was phenomenal in those days. After starting production in 1958, Boeing turned out about 1,000 of the four engine 707s. According to Wikipedia, there were ten 707s still in commercial service as of 2013.
The plane figured prominently in the book and original “Airport” movie. If you have a chance to watch the original “Airport” (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy) you will get an idea of just how fond people were of the 707.
The 707 also stared in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The speed of the aircraft inspired the author to write about a 707 that inadvertently traveled in time. Upon arrival at Idelwild (now known as New York JFK) on Long Island, they find a jungle full of dinosaurs rather than a nice modern airport.
The big Boeing was featured in popular music of the time as well. Gordon Lightfoot’s song, Early Morning Rain, uses the 707 as an image of escape from the cruel realities of life, “stuck here on the ground” His lyrics tell us of the “big 707 set to go”. He completes this image with, “Hear the mighty engines roar, see the silver bird on high, she’s away and westward bound, far above the clouds she’ll fly.”
The 707 was quite a show off in real life too. During a meeting of airline executives in Seattle, Boeing arranged to have their demo 707 do a fly by for the executive’s benefit. The test pilot at the controls, put the plane in a full roll during the fly by.
The You Tube link is well worth the time not only to watch the big plane perform this, but to hear the pilot’s son describe the event is very cool.
So, here’s to Boeing! Here’s to the 707! What a great airplane!